Ramblin' Hamblin

School Dropout Gets Software, Goes Surfing

Garry Hamblin - 2001.10.19

At the end of installment two, the school surplus NEC V/50 486 laptop had an external CD-ROM, a Practical Peripherals 33.6 modem, and 20 MB total RAM. I had also picked up a new "old stock" port replicator [docking bar] to save having to do a lot of unscrewing whenever I needed to use the laptop. I matched the machine up with an HP 710c printer that I already owned.

Software Soliloquy

The most important software choice concerned the operating system. I already owned Win 95B (on floppies - all 29 of them) and WFWG 3.11/DOS 6.22, so the choice would be between these. Available RAM was not much of a concern as 20 MB would be comfortable for either. I really like Win95, and it brings a lot of functionality over the older DOS and Windows 3.x combination. A lot of that is negated though, since this laptop doesn't have a plug and play BIOS.

Another issue was hard drive space. Win95 takes about 100 M of hard drive space, which would take a huge bite out of the 240 MB available. Similarly, programs which are Win95 native tend to be larger that their Win 3.x counterparts. Yes, I know I could compress the drive for more room, but I was not willing to live with the 10% performance hit this would cause. WFWG 3.x is very stable, and together with its DOS underpinnings it takes up about one-fifth the hard drive space of Win95. WFWG/DOS it would be.

Browsers, Email, and Dialers, Oh My!

With the operating system settled, and keeping in mind the goal of a cheap moderately capable Web surfer, the choice of browser was next. It was here I ran into a rather large problem. Just how does one download a browser when you don't have one to begin with? I ended up getting a friend to burn me a CD with Internet Explorer 3/Shiva Dialer, Netscape 4.08 (the last version that will work with Win 3.x), and Eudora Light 3.06 on it. Why these three? Well, IE 3 has very low RAM requirements (8 MB), which I felt would translate into faster load times. Eudora Light I was familiar with as a very fast and capable email client. Netscape 4.08, unlike IE 3, would be able to access secure sites so that I could make the all important eBay transactions. And most importantly, they are all free.

Pssst. How Come He Didn't Mention IE 5.01?

Hey, I checked into it. There is a version of Internet Explorer 5.01 that runs under Windows 3.x. I checked the minimum system requirements which state a 486/25 processor and 16 M RAM is required - certainly within my laptop specs. Then I remembered buying Win 95, which was supposed to run on a 386/40 with 4 MB RAM. It was a painful experience and taught me never to believe in minimum specs again. It was the same with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus - you grow up, you move on. sigh.

Other Necessary Stuff

Sooner or later you are going to run across a PDF document on the Web, and for this you need Acrobat Reader. You will find it on just about any program CD. In fact, is there a CD that doesn't have Acrobat Reader on it somewhere? I chose Reader 3.01 again keeping in mind the lower end spec of my machine.

I already owned a copy of MS Office 3.0, so Word 2 and Excel 4 also found their way onto the hard drive. If I hadn't owned them, I would have looked for an old copy of Microsoft Works.

It struck me that putting together hardware and software is much like a marriage, so with that in mind....

Something Old

Just because I already owned it and because you need some sort of disk health utility program, I also installed Norton Utilities 8 on the drive.

Something New

While perusing the bargain CD software bin at my local computer store, I noticed Lotus Organizer 2.12 in "value packaging" (no printed documentation) shrink wrapped for $2.00. Two friggin' dollars!?! Ya couldn't not buy it.

Something Borrowed

I was driving home from work and noticed a 14" monitor in my neighbour's garbage. I asked if it worked and could I have it? Only if I took the whole 486/25 minitower it was attached to. Uh, gee, no problem. I use the monitor as external video when the laptop is "grounded" to the docking bar.

Something Blue

The blue cloud Windows 95 wallpaper, that is. I decided that what I liked most about Windows 95 over WFWG was its interface. I had read about Calmira II, a Program Manager replacement that adds Win95 features to Win 3.x. I was kind of leery, but it is awesome. Enjoy Windows Explorer, Taskbar, and other features with the minimal hard drive and RAM requirements of Win 3.x. Available at www.calmira.org. Think of it as 16-bit Win 9.x. Very highly recommended.

Happily Ever After?

So how does it all work? Pretty good! I use IE 3 for most of my browsing because, as predicted, it loads and displays pages very quickly. It is unable to display some sites properly, but 95% of the time there is no problem. When I need to log onto a secure site, I use Netscape 4.08. It also works very well but is noticeably slower.

The email clients in both browsers are acceptable, but IE 3 doesn't have a clue about the new millennium, and Netscape's email client is quite slow. Hence the need for Eudora Light 3 when I just want to log in quickly, get my mail, and log off.

Why would anyone spend $1,500 and up on a new laptop? "Because it would work so much better" is the obvious answer. Comparing this tweaked 486 laptop to a new Pentium III notebook only underlines that there is no comparison - performancewise anyway.

Cheap PDA?

The real competitor to a cheap laptop in my opinion is a PDA. At $200 (Canadian) for the least expensive Palm, an older laptop that has more functionality and is a better value. Yeah, I know you can't slip a notebook into your pocket, but then no-one ever lost a notebook behind the couch cushions either.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

Well $35 notebooks of any description don't drop into your lap every day, but sound would have been nice. This particular model was not offered with a sound card when new, and the only way to add sound is via an expensive PCMCIA sound adapter. These rarely go for less than $75 (Canadian) on eBay, which is too much for me. I can live without it, but sound would add quite a bit to the computing experience if not the functionality.

If I was starting from scratch, I would look for a sound-equipped model. Nonetheless I have had a lot of fun with this project, and isn't that the point of the computer hobby?

Anyway, I gotta go, my brother-in-law phoned again, and he has his hands on some $50 school surplus Lexmark laser printers.... LEPC

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